Remote Lands

The Changing Landscape of Mongolia: From Ulaanbaatar to South Gobi

When you picture Mongolia, you might envision nomadic people living simple lives in gers (yurts) – and half of Mongolians still live this way, in the world’s most sparsely populated country. What I did not realize is the whirlwind speed of change in Mongolia, and in fact, it has the second-fastest growing economy in the world due to its mining industry, which has brought a lot of wealth to a relatively small number of people.

 

Parliament Building in Ulaanbaatar

Parliament Building in Ulaanbaatar

 

Ulaanbaatar has already changed dramatically since the last time I was there 7 years ago. While many of the buildings are reminders of Mongolia’s former Soviet influence, new construction has become essential, as the city now requires a more modern infrastructure to keep up with the needs of its increasing population and the influx of tourists hoping to experience Mongolia before it surges too far into its imminent future. One of these new buildings is the Blue Sky Hotel, a dramatic glass tower right on Sukhbaatar Square. It is Korean-owned, and it caters more to Koreans than Westerners, while the older Kempinski is more Western-oriented. Despite the Blue Sky Hotel’s fabulous views of the Square, its newness means the service is still spotty and the heating system does not work properly. It is one example of Ulaanbaatar’s growing pains.

 

Catherine Heald visits the Mongolian Stock Exchange

Catherine Heald visits the Mongolian Stock Exchange

 

I found Ulaanbaar fascinating – particularly the contrast between old and new. I spent my time in the city exploring the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Art, seeing the dinosaur skeletons at the Natural History Museum, watching the economy grow on the ground level at the Mongolia Stock Exchange, visiting the Choijin Lama Temple Museum, exploring the Naran Tuul “Black Market,” buying lots of gifts at the Gobi Cashmere factory outlet, and receiving a private blessing at the Gandan Monastery.

 

3 Camel Lodge in the South Gobi

3 Camel Lodge in the South Gobi

 

There is a huge contrast between the changes occurring in Ulaanbaatar and the old-world traditions of the rest of the country. To truly immerse yourself in Mongolia, you must escape the city. I flew commercially to Dalanzagad Airport in the South Gobi. Here scattered herds of semi-wild horses, sheep, and goats are all over the place. There are no fences, but the nomads know what they own. I stayed at 3 Camel Lodge, by far the best ger camp in Mongolia, in a deluxe ger with a private bathroom attached, which is a must if you can get it since not all gers have private bathrooms. But everyone has a shared shower, which is standard for stays at ger camps.

 

Inside my private ger at 3 Camel

Inside my private ger at 3 Camel

 

The landscape of South Gobi lends itself to outdoor touring activities, like hiking in the dramatic Yol Valley or touring the underwhelming Flaming Cliffs, which has a fascinating history, but in fact, there is not all that much to see there. The most interesting aspect of the Flaming Cliffs is the story behind it; the first dinosaur eggs and skeletons discovered in the world were unearthed here by the American Roy Chapman Andrews, the model for Indiana Jones. Hongor Sands (or the Singing Sands, as it is otherwise called) is four hours away from 3 Camel and requires an overnight stay in one of the surrounding low-end ger camps. I preferred the Tugrugiin Shiree sand dunes, as it is only an hour from the camp and provides a very similar experience.

 

Bactrian Camel Herd

Bactrian Camel Herd

 

Please see my other blogs on other areas of Mongolia and the reasons to fly privately in this massive, fascinating country with few roads and even fewer airports or  contact Remote Lands today at info@remotelands.com to begin planning your own Mongolian adventure.

Catherine Heald

Catherine Heald is the Co-Founder and CEO of Remote Lands, an ultra-luxe private tour operator based in New York and Bangkok. Catherine's love affair with Asia took off when she jetted to Hong Kong in 1987 and ended up staying for 7 years. She has been traveling to the continent ever since.

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